Category Archives: Free Speech

Read My Lips: No Heckler’s Veto

I sure wish those Faux News pundits who claim to revere the Constitution actually knew what was in it.

Evidently, Satanists in Oklahoma City are planning to hold a “black mass.” Whatever that is. Now, insofar as we can tell, these folks have been entirely peaceful–however much their views may offend  adherents of more traditional doctrines, the only “harm” they’ve inflicted has been to religious sensibilities.

Enter know-nothing Tucker Carlson.

Tucker Carlson opined that the Satanic leader “clearly just wants publicity.” He asked if “Christians are playing into his plan” by protesting. In response to whether Christian should ignore him, Fr. Morris said that everybody needs to do what they think is best, such as talking about it on Fox. He encouraged prayer for the Satanic leader’s soul. When Clayton Morris interjected that the city is standing on free speech, Fr. Morris asked “what about if I want to desecrate a Koran…and speak pro-Nazi stuff right in front of my church and get people all fired up on a public sidewalk.”  (The Satanic mass is not being held on the street). Despite his (and Fox’s) belief about limited government, he opined that “government has to step in and say you can’t incite violence in the name of free speech.” The chyron validated his point: “First Amendment Foul, City: Constitution Protects Right to Gather.”

This approach–oh, no, we can’t let [fill in the blank] speak, because what they have to say will anger people and spark civil unrest. We have to shut them down in order to preserve the public peace!–was the argument used across the American south to shut down people like Martin Luther King. It’s called the Heckler’s Veto, because it allows “hecklers”–people who disagree with what is being said–to veto the message.

The courts have consistently ruled that they can’t do that. The message from the bench has been clear: If the authorities are genuinely worried about breaches of the peace, they need to beef up security, not shut the speaker down.

Isn’t it interesting how many pompous frauds want the protections offered by the Bill of Rights for themselves–but don’t want those same rules applied to others?

I have news for Tucker Carlson: It’s only freedom when it applies to everyone. Even people you don’t like. If the government gets to pick and choose who gets to assert a right, it’s no longer a right. It’s a privilege.

And privileges can be revoked.

 

Money and Speech

The big problem with the Supreme Court’s insistence–ever since Buckley v. Valeo– that money is just a different form of speech is that the equation ignores reality.

In theory, it’s logical: I should be able to use my dollars to voice my support of the candidate who favors the same spay-neuter policies that I support. I should be able to signal my support for Candidate A by buying an ad in the local newspaper, or pooling funds with others to run that ad demonstrating that Candidate B pulled wings off flies when he was young. Whatever.

It’s freedom, dude.

The problem, of course, is that equating money with speech gives some people much louder voices than others. (You’d think the great minds on the Court might have noticed this lack of fiscal parity and been troubled by its implications, but this obvious privileging of the wealthy and powerful evidently escaped the majority’s notice.)

I thought about the consequences of the “money equals speech” formula yesterday, during a discussion with one of the producers of the homelessness documentary about which I’ve previously posted, “Uncharted: The Truth Behind Homelessness.” The small team that produced the documentary about the treatment of homeless folks in Indianapolis produced it on the proverbial shoestring;  now they are trying to raise enough money to promote it, and it has been a slog.

People who want to “sell” Indianapolis, people with a vested interest in a particular version of local reality, who want to focus national attention on our sports venues or other “shiny objects” have plenty of resources with which to do that. Their free speech rights are easy to exercise. The passionate students who put together this thoughtful and well-made film have the same theoretical freedom of speech that the cheerleaders enjoy. What they don’t have is resources.

A cynic might suggest that, without resources, their free speech rights are rather illusory.

I’m not in a position to change the jurisprudence that has gotten us here, but I am in a position to send a small check, to try to even the playing field just a little, to ensure that a disfavored message has a chance to be communicated. I hope some of the readers of this blog will join me. We’ll never have the decibels of the Koch Brothers, but together, perhaps we can help make at least this one message more audible.

This is their Paypal link: a-oppy1@hotmail.com 

Want to send a check? It can be made out to Lighthouse Research and mailed to: 12210 Laurelwood Ct., Indianapolis, IN 46236.

Because we know what the Court refused to acknowledge: free speech isn’t free.

Rupert Murdoch and Climate Change

One of the most thoughtful commenters to this blog recently sent me an interesting–albeit disquieting–article from Mother Jones. The subject was climate change and the curious fact that the countries with the largest numbers of skeptics were all English-speaking:  U.S., England and Australia. Canada wasn’t in the bottom cluster, but it was close.

Why would the English language correlate with climate skepticism? As the author, respected science reporter Chris Mooney, notes

There is nothing about English, in and of itself, that predisposes you to climate change denial. Words and phrases like “doubt,” “natural causes,” “climate models,” and other skeptic mots are readily available in other languages. So what’s the real cause?

Mooney quotes political scientists for (pretty unpersuasive) theories linking neoliberalism with denialism, but then he suggests a simpler–and very troubling–explanation:

The English language media in three of these four countries are linked together by a single individual: Rupert Murdoch. An apparent climate skeptic or lukewarmer, Murdoch is the chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. (You can watch him express his climate views here.) Some of the media outlets subsumed by the two conglomerates that he heads are responsible for quite a lot of English language climate skepticism and denial.

In the US, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal lead the way; research shows that Fox watching increases distrust of climate scientists. (You can also catch Fox News in Canada.) In Australia, a recent study found that slightly under a third of climate-related articles in 10 top Australian newspapers “did not accept” the scientific consensus on climate change, and that News Corp papers—the Australian, the Herald Sun, and the Daily Telegraph—were particular hotbeds of skepticism. “The Australian represents climate science as matter of opinion or debate rather than as a field for inquiry and investigation like all scientific fields,” noted the study.

And then there’s the UK. A 2010 academic study found that while News Corp outlets in this country from 1997 to 2007 did not produce as much strident climate skepticism as did their counterparts in the US and Australia, “the Sun newspaper offered a place for scornful skeptics on its opinion pages as did The Times and Sunday Times to a lesser extent.” (There are also other outlets in the UK, such as the Daily Mail, that feature plenty of skepticism but aren’t owned by News Corp.)

I have long been a free speech purist–and I remain convinced by John Stuart Mill’s argument that only the freest expression and most robust exchange of ideas  will yield Truth (note capital T). Climate skeptics are entitled to their say, and Faux News is entitled to spew demonstrable inaccuracies and falsehoods on this and all manner of other issues, no matter how maddening some of us find that and no matter how much damage their fabrications do to our ability to produce sound public policies.

Ideally, a few wealthy individuals would not be allowed to dominate the media (the right to free expression does not include the right to crowd out dissenting opinions), but in the age of the Internet, restrictions on the number of media outlets one corporation can control are arguably unnecessary, and unlikely in any event.

We’ll just have to hope that Mill and others were right–that people will examine the information they are being fed, consider the sources of that information, and come to rational conclusions. And perhaps that’s happening; Fox News has been losing market share for the last few years.

We can hope….

 

 

Civility and Free Speech

At 5:00 pm today, I will participate in a panel discussion at the McKinney School of Law (my alma mater), focused on whether the Free Speech protections of the First Amendment tend to promote incivility.

Back in the day, when I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I mounted a campaign through the organization’s newsletter to promote civility. That campaign caused consternation for some members, who worried that an emphasis on civil discourse somehow undermined, or was evidence of less than robust support for, Free Speech.

They missed what I believe to be the central point.

Philosophers from John Stuart Mill to Alexander Mieklejohn have argued for protection of speech and the free exchange of ideas; they have seen the “marketplace of ideas” as the absolutely necessary foundation of the search for truth.  (As Mieklejohn famously said, People who are afraid of an idea—any idea—are unfit for self-government.)

The nation’s Founders understood that all ideas, no matter how noxious, should be available for discussion. They certainly didn’t protect speech because they underestimated the danger ideas could pose; they knew how powerful –and damaging–ideas could be. They protected free expression because they understood that giving government the authority to decide which ideas are acceptable—what sort of speech should be permitted– was far more dangerous.

But that is where civility comes in. If free speech is to achieve its purposes—if it is to encourage us to consider and vet all ideas, consider all perspectives—we need to listen to each other. Insults, labeling, dismissing, racial “dog whistles”—all those hallmarks of incivility—distract from and derail the kinds of genuine conversation that the First Amendment is intended to foster.

Screaming invective across political or religious divides undermines the purpose of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions. Is such speech protected? Absolutely. Is it useful? Not usually.

Who’s Talking?

As long as we’re on the subject of First Amendment Free Speech rights, a federal judge has just handed down a decision that illuminates another aspect of those rights.

As I explained yesterday, our right to free expression is protected against government interference. Usually we think of that interference in terms of censorship, of government shutting us down. But this judge’s decision–which rests on decades of settled law–reminds us of another thing government cannot constitutionally do: it cannot compel our speech, either.

(Reuters) – A federal judge on Friday struck down a 2011 North Carolina law requiring abortion providers to perform an ultrasound and explain it to a woman before having an abortion, arguing it violated the constitutional right to free speech of doctors.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles found that a state does not have “the power to compel a health care provider to speak, in his or her own voice, the state’s ideological message in favor of carrying a pregnancy to term.”

If the right to free speech means anything, it means that we have a right to form our own opinions, based on the widest possible access to information, and to share those opinions with others, or not, as we see fit.

Being forced to recite a script and pretend it represents our own views, like being forced to affirm allegiance to a deity or a nation (see Barnett v. West Virginia Board of Education), isn’t just intellectually dishonest; it violates our most fundamental liberties.

Compelled speech is especially pernicious when it intrudes upon the doctor/patient relationship, which depends to a great extent upon the patient’s ability to rely upon the candor of her provider–to trust that her doctor is acting in her best interests.

The principle extends well beyond medical advice, however. If the government could tell professionals of any sort what to say, if lawmakers could impose “correct” communication on scientists, police officers, media figures… how would Americans ever be able to trust anyone?

How would we know who is really talking?